On occasion of World Health Day on 7 April, it might be worth reflecting on the health benefits of yoga. When I went to my first yoga class I loved it because it made me feel good: My mood lifted, I felt physically stronger and fitter, and I enjoyed time to myself as well as meeting fellow yoga enthusiasts. But there is more to yoga than the commonly reported feel-good factor: More and more studies confirm specific yoga health benefits. For example, in 2016 yoga was included into the NICE guidelines for the treatment of lower back pain.
Research validates yoga health benefits
Yoga is a holistic system. The word ‘yoga’ derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘yoke’ – to join together. Practising yoga brings together body, mind, and self. Yoga combines postures, movement, breathing, meditation and philosophical enquiry. It is therefore not surprising that research into the lifestyle effects of yoga has shown that individuals who practice yoga regularly smoke less, eat more fruit and vegetables, sleep better, report greater interpersonal relationships and have fewer physical and mental health problems. A 2013 national survey of yoga practicioners found that yoga improves symptoms associated with chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Furthermore, yoga promotes mental health, reducing depression and anxiety.
Yoga for managing stress
Many of the common techniques to reduce stress levels are found in yoga:
- physical movement and stretching
- controlled breathing
- control of thought processes
- mental imagery
Yoga is effective for stress relief because it has many physical benefits as well as boosting the mood, teaching mindfulness, offering a broader view on life, and encouraging a healthy dose of self-compassion.
Which yoga is best?
There is a considerable (and often confusing) number of different styles of yoga, from dynamic Ashtanga Vinyasa to alignment-focussed Iyengar Yoga to meditative approaches such as Yin Yoga. The style of yoga is not so important, though: The art is to find a class (and teacher), which suits our temperament and our requirements so that we feel motivated to take part regularly. On the other hand, by alternating different styles we can avoid one-sidedness, making sure that physical and mental benefits are balanced.
Although yoga started out as a male-only system, it has evolved into a predominantly female activity here in the west. However, more and more more men are taking up yoga, yoga sessions in schools are on the increase, people with restricted abilities can turn to restorative and chair yoga, yoga classes are to be offered to NHS staff to reduce absence because of stress, in many cities there is yoga in the park – hopefully the benefits of yoga will soon be accessible to everybody.
Make yoga an activity of daily living
Practice makes perfect. To reap the rewards of yoga, attending classes is only one part of the story: A regular yoga home practice is essential, too. According to research on the frequency of yoga practice, doing yoga at home seems to be even more important than how long we have been practicing yoga or how many classes we take.
This emphasizes a simple fact: If we want to fully benefit from our yoga practice, we need to make yoga part of our daily life.
“In the practice of Yoga one can emphasize the body, the mind or the self and hence the effort can never be fruitless.”